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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Seven Sisters
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“In the kitchen,” I called out, smiling widely at my husband.

Gabe’s wary, blue-gray eyes traveled from my face to his son’s, then back to mine. A small groan rumbled in his chest. “I should have known. Just what are you two plotting?”

“I’m starved,” Sam said, opening the cupboard and taking out a blue-and-white stoneware plate.

“Let’s finish eating,” I said, patting the top of Gabe’s hand.

Gabe shook his head and took another bite, his expression stern. “You’d better not be quitting school again or tell me you’re on drugs or in trouble with the law.”

“It’s not any of those things,” Sam said quickly, taking a seat across from Gabe. “I swear.”

Gabe’s face relaxed as he pushed aside his empty plate. “Then anything else is a piece of cake.”

I unwrapped the foil-covered plate and held it out to him. “Have a cookie.”

His eyes lit up at the sight of his favorite dessert.

“Better make it two,” Sam encouraged.

3

“I’M WHAT?” GABE bellowed.

Sam yelled back, the timbre of his voice an eerie, younger version of his father’s. “I said you’re going to be a grandfather. Get over it.”

I pushed my way between the two glowering Ortiz men, resting my hands firmly on Gabe’s chest. “Gabe, we can work this out. It’s a little inconvenient maybe, but . . .”

“I should have expected as much from you,” Gabe said over my head. “And just who is this girl you got in trouble?”

“She’s not
in trouble,
” Sam snapped. “She’s pregnant, and we’re going to get married. No big deal.”

“Married! And what do you plan to do then? Where are you going to live? What are you going to eat? How are you going to support this girl and her baby?”

“Dad,” Sam said, his voice lower. “I love her, and it’s my baby, too.”

I moved from between them and watched as the realization of what Sam said hit Gabe. His Adam’s apple moved once in a convulsive swallow. He cleared his throat and asked in a less harsh voice, “Who is she?”

Sam looked at me in desperation. I nodded in encouragement but kept a hand on Gabe’s forearm.

Sam straightened his spine and said in a composed voice, “Bliss Girard.”

Gabe’s left eye gave a single twitch, then not a muscle moved on his face. I knew he was shocked, but I also knew he was drawing on every ounce of his cop’s experience not to react.

Sam shifted from one sandaled foot to the other, his face flushed under his deep surfer tan. “I’m not going to ask you for money. Bliss and I will work this out.”

Gabe gazed back at his son for a long minute, then turned and walked out of the room.

Sam wiped a bead of sweat from his upper lip, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “I thought he’d go ballistic when he found out who she was.”

I shrugged one shoulder, unable to explain his father. “He’s tired, Sam. Things have been busy at the station these last few weeks with school just starting and that homicide over near the train station. He’s under a lot of pressure.”

“He’s really mad, isn’t he?” Sam’s face became sad. Then, as rapidly as a summer rainstorm, it turned angry. “I don’t care if he is. It’s not his life. Bliss works for him, but he doesn’t own her.”

I gave his waist a quick hug. “The worst is over, stepson. It’ll take some time, but Gabe will get used to it. Then mark my words, he’ll be the most doting grandpa you’ve ever seen.”

“Thanks,
madrastra,
” he said, using the affectionate Spanish term for stepmother. He ran his fingers through his black, cropped hair. “One parent down, one to go.”

“You haven’t told your mother yet?”

Gabe’s ex-wife, Lydia, was a prominent defense attorney who, after a recent divorce, had moved from Newport Beach and taken a position at a Santa Barbara law firm specifically to be closer to Sam. Because of her busy schedule, we still hadn’t met. Sam went down to Santa Barbara to visit her a couple of times a month. The only picture I’d ever seen of her was one of Sam and her when he graduated high school two years ago. If I’d been given twenty-five words or less to describe her I would have said: black hair, black eyes, thin, tall, gorgeous, and Saks-Fifth-Ave—classy. It was easy to see how her and Gabe’s combined genetics produced a parade-stopper like Sam.

“How do you think she’ll react?” I asked.

“She’ll be irritated, but not as much as Dad. She was always more into damage control than Dad. Prevention is more his thing.”

I raised my eyebrows, but didn’t reply. Prevention, in this case, would certainly have been the more prudent action, but I wasn’t about to get into a discussion about birth control or abstinence with my nineteen-year-old stepson. That was definitely in the realm of biological parental privilege. “When are you going to tell her?”

“Tomorrow. Me and Bliss are having lunch with her in Santa Barbara. Then I guess Dad and her will have a powwow.”

The first of many, no doubt. My stomach churned slightly at the thought. “Well, good luck. And, Sam ...”

He sighed extravagantly, resigned to hearing one more piece of advice.

“Everything will work out. You and Bliss will make great parents. That’s gonna be one lucky baby.”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Thanks, Benni. I really needed to hear that.”

In the bedroom, Gabe was sitting on our bed staring at the floor. I sat down next to him and rubbed small circles on his solid back. “Friday, it’s a baby. It’s not the end of the world.”

“He’s so young and irresponsible. And one of my own officers! It’s just too much of a coincidence. What was he thinking? What was she thinking? What . . .”

I laughed out loud, grabbed the back of his neck, and squeezed it. “Thinking? Friday, they weren’t
thinking,
anymore than we were when we were so
in lust
a year and a half ago. Remember how many people whispered about us when we got married so quickly? Did we care? Not one bit because all we could see was each other. We were in blind love, just like Sam and Bliss. It’s just a fluke that she works for you. I haven’t heard how they met, but I’m guessing the first time was last year when he and I tried to stop those jerks from wrecking your dad’s truck. I also bet they’ve really worried about how to tell you about their relationship. I’ve talked to Bliss a few times, and she doesn’t strike me as being a frivolous woman.”

“She isn’t,” Gabe said, his face thoughtful. “I imagine this has been difficult for her. She must care a great deal for Sam to risk it.”

“Not hard to do. You Ortiz men do tend to be irresistible.”

He turned and pushed me down on the bed, covering me with his heavy, warm body. “By the way, what do you mean
were
in lust? What’s with the past tense?” He bent down and kissed me deeply, his tongue hard and sweet and tantalizing.

“Okay, okay,
are
in lust,” I murmured, as his lips moved down my throat, setting a line of electric sparks on my skin.

“And don’t you forget it,” he said, unbuttoning my shirt.

“Hmm, this will be something new. I’ve never made love with a grandfather before.”

He undid the last button and pulled my shirt back, his blue eyes bright against his mahogany skin. “That,
niña,
” he said, “is something you won’t be able to say an hour from now.”

4

AT THE MUSEUM the next morning, before tackling my accumulating paperwork, I called the ranch.

“Did Sam finally tell you?” I asked Dove. I’d called her last night and after swearing her to secrecy, told her about the baby.

“Yes, he told me and your daddy at breakfast,” she said. “I pretended to be surprised, but I suspected something was going on. He’d been off his feed for about a week. When he turned down a second helping of my banana-cinnamon rolls morning last, I knew something fishy was up. I’m already looking through my patterns for a crib quilt. What do you think of Tumbling Blocks?”

“Can’t think of a more appropriate pattern, but maybe you should think about a marriage quilt first.” I doodled interlocking circles on the scratch pad in front of me. “Maybe the Wedding Ring pattern.”

“That’s too predictable. The Broken Dishes pattern is nice, and I could make one a lot quicker.”

I laughed and started coloring in one of the circles. “Not to mention it could be a prediction of what’s in their future. Are you coming into town today? Want to have lunch?”

“Wish I could, honeybun, but I’m brainstorming down at the senior citizen center all day trying to figure out a way we can earn the seven thousand dollars we need to replace our kitchen.”

“Didn’t the insurance company cover the fire?” One of the members (a
man,
Dove and the ladies immediately pointed out to anyone who asked) had attempted to fry some tacos and started a grease fire that gutted the kitchen.

“They covered it, but they’re wanting to do it the cheapest way possible. We need the money to upgrade and enlarge our capacity.”

“So, any great money-making ideas yet?”

“This is the most pathetic, unimaginative group of busybodies I’ve ever laid eyes on. Can’t think beyond bake sales and quilt raffles. We need big money fast. Like I said, we’re brainstorming today. I told them that this dang committee has six hundred years of experience between them. Land’s sake, we should be able to come up with something more clever than selling cupcakes.”

“Well, good luck.”

“Luck is for the birds. We need cold, hard cash.”

“Put me down for twenty bucks.”

“Huh, big spender,” she said, hanging up on my laughter.

Next I called Elvia at the bookstore and told her about Sam and Bliss.

“Did you take Gabe’s gun away before telling him?” she asked, not entirely kidding.

“Tell him what?” I heard my cousin Emory’s voice in the background.

“What’s that low-life journalist doing there so early in the morning?” I asked. She’d been dating my cousin, Emory, a writer for the
San Celina Telegram-Tribune,
for almost a year now. He’d moved to California last year from Sugartree, Arkansas, to wine and dine her, and apparently that’s all that has taken place. We’d certainly been counting on attending a wedding soon, but we’d hoped it would be Emory and Elvia’s. Emory was crazy in love with my best friend, and I was pretty sure she loved him, too. It was getting her to admit it that was the horsefly in the liniment.

“He’s trying to tempt me with almond scones,” she said.

“Is it working?” I asked hopefully.

“We’ll see. So, how about lunch?”

“Noon at Liddie’s. Bring the journalist if you want.”

“So he can pay?” Elvia asked, laughing.

“Of course, what else is he good for?”

Emory’s voice came on the line. “What’s going on, ladies ? My ears are positively flaming.”

“You fill him in, Elvia,” I said. “I’ll see you both at noon.”

I’d finally settled down to my paperwork and was composing yet another grant request when JJ Brown, one of the newest additions to our artists’ co-op, knocked on my door frame.

“Got a minute, Benni?”

I glanced up from my new laptop computer, grateful for the interruption. “Sure,” I said, gesturing to the black vinyl and metal visitor’s chair across from my desk. “I’ve been fiddling with the line spacing on this blasted thing for fifteen minutes and am about ready to toss it in the trash and sharpen a pencil. Any interesting diversion is definitely appreciated.”

She grimaced at the gray plastic machine on my desk. “I am the original technophobe. I’m determined to be the only person in my age group who never learns to use a computer.”

“Right now I know how you feel. So, what can I do for you?”

She settled back in the chair and gazed at me thoughtfully. JJ was a welcome, though sometimes controversial addition to the group of forty or so rotating artists who belonged to the co-op sponsored by the folk art museum. In the three months she’d belonged to the co-op, her hair color had changed no less than four times. She was fond of East Indian—style skirts, sixties’ bell-bottoms, and belted, rayon dresses that I vaguely remember my elementary schoolteachers wearing. Of course, on JJ they looked decidedly funkier when you added her spiky, fluctuating hair, her blue, green, or black nail polish, and the fake rhinestone beauty marks she placed in surprising spots on her body. Some of the more conservative co-op members found her off-putting at first, but her gentle sense of humor, her generosity and willingness to work, not to mention the beautiful and exacting details of her hand-sewn storytelling crazy quilts quickly changed people’s minds. Her true gratitude for being included as a co-op member touched me and immediately made me like her.

“Can I close the door?” she asked.

I nodded and settled back in my chair. This sounded serious. I hoped that someone hadn’t really hurt her feelings and she was going to leave the co-op. We needed our younger artists to keep the co-op from becoming too set in its ways. Her unusual crazy quilts had caused quite a controversy in craft circles. Rejecting the traditional silks and velveteens of most crazy quilts, she used a combination of vintage and modern fabrics, conversation prints, leather, bones, and antique buttons to create a modern crazy quilt that defied even the controversial pattern itself. Each of her creations carried a theme celebrating life’s most important moments—birth, first day of school, marriage, divorce, death—and were starting to get noticed by certain parts of professional craft circles. All it took for an artist was to be “discovered” by a respected, well-connected folk art collector, and her career was on its way. I hoped that happened for her not only because she deserved it but, selfishly, so our folk art museum would benefit from the publicity, making it slightly easier to obtain those ever-elusive grant funds.

She sat down and twisted her legs together under her thin, flowing skirt. “Guess I’ll just spit it out. I wasn’t exactly truthful to you on my co-op application.”

“Oh?” I said, sitting forward and lacing my fingers together.

She looked down at her hands, her face tinted rose. Her stiff, olive green, spiky hair reminded me that I’d promised Gabe I’d make asparagus this week for dinner. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said.

BOOK: Seven Sisters
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